A.R. Gurney wrote this irreverent political satire — a left-wing broadside grafted onto the plot of “Casablanca” — expressly for those eager young pups at the Flea who, besides putting on shows, take the tickets, sell the bottled water and clean up after the show. But the unstaged-reading format makes this neat little package so efficient to stage and cheap to produce, “Screen Play” could be tossed in a suitcase and assembled as needed, wherever demoralized Democrats gather to contemplate dark deeds of Jacobean revenge.
Every independent company should have a patron playwright as generous as Gurney, who also funneled “O Jerusalem” and “Mrs. Farnsworth” through the pipeline at the Flea, the scrappy resident Tribeca theater founded by Jim Simpson and Carol Ostrow. No less than previous gifts (such as his popular two-hander “Love Letters”), this one has “benefit fund-raiser” written all over its cute kisser.
Although lame title gives no hint of it, “Screen Play” is a clever pastiche of that immortal wartime film classic in which Humphrey Bogart plays cynical host to the political scum of the earth at Rick’s Cafe Americain in no man’s-land Morocco.
Action is transposed here to no man’s land Buffalo and set in 2015, when the U.S. is supposedly governed by a Republican dictatorship of right-wing religious fanatics.
Gurney’s script abides original source by observing formulaic elements like the border lockdown that prompts brisk underworld traffic in bogus passports for illegal immigrants frantic to make it over the border to — where else — Canada.
Positioned behind lecterns, kiddie cast members don’t have the weight of years or experience to convince anyone that they’ve been there, done that and been arrested for it. But they’ve all lived through the 2000 presidential election, which in Gurney’s book was the criminal event that drove every decent American (including a noble Ingrid Bergman stand-in and her freedom-fighter husband) running for the border. That at least occasionally gives a bit of urgency to the readings, which are, for the most part, ironically phlegmatic under helmer Simpson’s droll direction.
What the troupers lack in worldly sophistication, they make up in amusing vocal (in)sincerity and mimetic talent. In particular, Brian Morvant (who also plays that noble freedom fighter) gives good voiceover, thick with doom and gloom, in passages describing the chaos at the borders and the romantic criminals skulking around at Nick’s.
But the play’s the thing, here, with its pointed political jabs and hilarious Buffalo gags. Setting the show in his hometown gives Gurney joke rights to such objects of civic pride as Niagara Falls. It also allows scribe to pen the funniest line in show: “We’ll always have Buffalo.”